Candles are common accessories in most American homes. They add ambiance, scent the air, and mark celebrations. But for pioneers, candles weren’t just another frill – they were essential for reading, cooking, sewing, eating, and socializing after sunset.
Because commercial candles weren’t available, and candle molds were an expensive luxury, most families created cheaper, hand-dipped candles with wax sourced from nature. Children, who were usually tasked with candle-making, collected wax from beehives or, more commonly, boiled fruit from the native wax myrtle tree to extract the wax. Although these candles smelled great, they were inefficient to make. Beeswax was difficult to find, and wax myrtle candles required 15 pounds of fruit to create one pound of wax.
Candles made from animal fat, or tallow, were more practical, but the candles didn’t burn well and smelled bad, especially candles made from pig tallow. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that paraffin wax was created from coal. The candle industry exploded as entrepreneurs invested in machines to mass produce candles out of the new, cheaper material. As the price of candles dropped, it became more economical to purchase candles.
Although we no longer need to make candles, the activity can still be a fun and inexpensive weekend craft for children and adults. Not only will participants end up with a useful and colorful keepsake, but the process is also an important educational tool for understanding pioneer life. To get started, check out the guide below.
Paraffin wax blocks
A large knife with a thin, sharp blade
Wooden spoons for stirring
A large tin can with wire handles to hold the wax
Yellow/brown crayons or candle dye for color
Old pots to make a water bath for tin cans
Wicks, pre-cut to 8 inches or longer
Glass jars for cooling water dips
Buckets of extra water for refilling jars and pots
A heat source like a stove (if you’re at home) or a well-built campfire
Fire extinguisher and heat resistant gloves
Making Hand-Dipped Candles
Cut the wax into small pieces so it will melt quickly. Place the wax pieces into a tin can with the wire handle facing up.
Fill your pot with hot water, and then place the wax can into the water pot. Heat the water to a simmer, making sure the water levels do not drop below a few inches. Avoid getting water into the wax cans, and do not let wax get into the water pots.
Stir the wax until it’s completely melted and move the pot away from the heat source. Ensure the water is warm but not boiling to keep the wax liquid.
Add color to your candles by dropping crayons or dye drops into the liquid wax. Add a little at a time until you have reached the desired shade, keeping in mind that wax lightens as it dries.
Next, take your wick and cut it to measure a little less than twice the length of the candle. To have something to grip, tie one end of the wick to a stick and tie the dipping end into a knot.
Begin building the wax layer by dipping the wick in the hot wax and then a jar of water to cool. Make sure to leave a portion of the wick free of wax so the candle can be hung up to dry at the end. Continue alternating between the two until your candle thickens. Because the wick will float on top of the wax at first, you will need to pull the wick straight after the first few dips to encourage a proper candle shape. Make sure you do not hold the wick in the wax for more than a few seconds because the candle will fall apart.
Continue this dipping and cooling process until the candle has reached 2 to 4 inches long and grown to at least the thickness of a thumb. Roll the candle between your hands to smooth any lumps.
Trim the thicker end of the candle with a knife so that it will sit flat in a candle holder. Hang the candle to dry by the wick. Once the candle hardens, it can be placed in a candle holder and used.
Maintenance: Reheat the wax as needed as it solidifies in the cans. Melt and dye new wax when necessary. Leave any leftover wax in the cans to be reused another day.
Make Safety A Priority
Never leave the candle making area unattended.
Watch children closely and assist young children. Hot wax does not boil or steam, so it’s hard to judge how hot it is. Do not let children stick their fingers in the wax.
Keep your work area tidy. Beware of any loose clothing and keep the ground clear. Cans of wax can be bumped and spill easily, causing serious burns.
In case of a wax fire, treat it as you would a grease fire. Do not throw water on a wax fire. Use a fire extinguisher. If the wax fire is contained in a pan, cover with a lid to limit oxygen and extinguish the heat source fire.
Never let wax come in contact with flames. Wax is extremely flammable. Remove melted wax from the heat as soon as it is liquefied. Do not let melted wax sit over the fire. Always use the water pot for melting wax, and never place a wax-filled container directly over a heat source.
Keep a close watch on the water pot, as water evaporates quickly and must be replenished frequently.
Do not pour leftover wax on the ground, down sinks, toilets, drains, or storm sewers. Leave wax in cans to solidify to use another day.